Teaching Young People

Cults and Society, 2001

Teaching Young People

Alexandra Stein

How did Napoleon, Orwell's totalitarian pig, persuade a farmyard full of sheep to bleat, "Four legs good, two legs better! Four legs good, two legs better!" in honor of a long line of pigs marching ridiculously on their hind legs? In his allegory, Animal Farm, George Orwell (1946) simply and clearly describes the psychological manipulation of totalist systems. Can we, as cult awareness educators, follow his example and use simple language and clear thinking to communicate these complex concepts?

In her essay, Laboratories of Social Change, the author Doris Lessing (1987) looks forward to a time when people will understand the mechanisms of group behavior and group psychology, teach their children these mechanisms, and apply this knowledge to their daily lives. By applying the existing research in this way, she says, we may start to challenge our "most primitive and instinctive reactions," those reactions which so often have led us to act against our own interests and our own survival. This group psychology, she argues, while well-understood by social scientists, has not yet reached the broader public to help change destructive social behaviors.

Lessing imagines a scenario where nations organize education to teach children how human beings respond to group situations. This is education, she says, for the long term and for human survival, unlike the current focus on technology skills, which (though necessary) by its nature focuses on the short-term and the temporary. But she scoffs at the idea that governments will ever support this type of learning. Political parties use these very mechanisms of group psychology to maintain power, she argues, so why would they threaten their own position?

The Maryland Task Force on Cults, however, may challenge Lessing’s misgivings about governments. Recommendation 9 in their Final Report requires Maryland's public senior higher educational institutions to: "create an educational program for incoming students and ongoing education programs thereafter […] to assist students in assessing their decisions whether to join groups and how to recognize destructive behavior that may be affecting them" (emphasis added).

The Problem of Language

Despite the fact that this Task Force, convened this summer by the Maryland state legislature, recognized a problem and created an eleven point set of recommendations to deal with it, the controversy surrounding this issue is such that the word cult appears in the final report only in quotes. As for example: "…certain individuals were concerned that the Task Force was attempting to define religion, identify certain religious groups as being "cults" and equating "destructive groups" and "cults" with religion." (ref.)

It is illustrative of the stage of our educational efforts that, while "cults" exist to the extent that a governmental Task Force is convened to study their impact, yet still we may not use this word to name them. This reminds me of Orwell’s 1984 and his description of Newspeak which: "was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum" (Orwell, 1949). Newspeak lives! This "whatever-it-is" has enough of an existence to cause witnesses to testify emotionally and at length on "whatever-it-is", and for others to testify equally emotionally that such a thing doesn't exist at all. It is, however, enough of a "whatever-it-is" for the Task Force to list thirteen behavior characteristics that define this mysterious, un-nameable thingamajig.

Cults (whoops! - I mean "cults") themselves restrict thought by restricting language (Lifton's loaded language). In our educational efforts we need to have a rich vocabulary to discuss this "whatever-it-is"; a clear language that allows for complexity, that allows us to discuss the continuum of social influence, and that also gives us the ability to define points along that continuum with precision.

Broadening the Scope

Perhaps part of the problem is that this "whatever-it-is" is broader, in fact, than simply the issue of cults (OK, OK, I give up, no more quotes) – although clearly cults are one of its most dramatic and damaging forms. This column will regard this issue as including, not only cults, but also the study of influence, of group behavior, of power relationships between people and of psychological manipulation.

Lessing emphasizes the importance of the "soft sciences" – social psychology, social anthropology, psychology and so forth – in understanding ourselves as social animals, subject to the pressures of group influence and needful of the comforts of group life. But she also points to literature and history, "those two great branches of human learning, records of human behavior, human thought" which can be taught as stories from which we "may learn, not only what has happened, but what may, and probably will, happen again".

Individuals, families and individual schools can act as a "yeast," says Lessing, to introduce these new ideas and to stir up the society as a whole. In that sense those of us in the cult awareness world – particularly in the US where we tend to feel beleaguered – can be proud of our role as sentinels who advocate for these ideas in a society that resists confronting them.

Raising Visibility

A key problem facing those of us concerned with education is to raise the visibility of these topics. We know that, unless there is a Heaven’s Gate, a Waco, or an Aum Shinrikyo, the problem of cultic activity and psychological manipulation remains hidden on a day-to-day basis. It is hidden due to shame, due to the very withdrawal from society (and therefore public view) of most cults, and frequently it is hidden by fear of litigation. Education in our field must start by finding ways to make this issue visible in the way that domestic violence has become so in the past twenty years, brought out of the "privacy" of family life and into the public realm for open discussion and examination.

Visibility can be raised by former members telling their stories (Lessing defines literature as being a record also of human memory), and more and more of these are becoming available. At the last AFF conference a small group of volunteers (this author among them) organized an evening of Readings on the Cult Experience to provide a public forum for some of these stories. Perhaps the cult awareness organizations can find more ways to provide such outlets.

Part of this visibility comes when the research being done in the "soft sciences" is translated, summarized, and made useful to lay people and the media.

Allying ourselves with others working on related issues can also raise visibility. We can form useful collaborations with those working to prevent youth violence, domestic violence, AIDS/HIV, drug abuse, and other social ills. We have much to offer, with our understanding of the mechanisms of social influence and manipulation, to workers in these fields who in turn can share with us their experience in public health education.

Finally it is critical that we begin to connect our work to broader issues of human rights and democracy. Perhaps we can work with those educating young people on the human rights agenda and contribute our particular understanding of the impact of psychological manipulation on democracy.

We must also move the debate beyond the trap of "religious freedom" in which it now languishes in this country. I, for one, as a former member of a political cult, find the religious freedom debate less than relevant to my experience. We can learn from other countries how to broaden the discussion, and show how critical this issue is to general democratic health.

Sharing Knowledge and Experience

Future columns published here will attempt to provide a channel to share experiences and ideas on education in our field by discussing:

  • Current efforts at education and assessment of those efforts

  • Ideas and theories on education

  • Use of public health models

  • Opportunities for, and obstacles to, implementing prevention education

  • Work in related fields, and collaborations with those fields

  • Overseas efforts

Please contact me to contribute your experience and ideas to this discussion.

Our efforts are important. They are important in helping people identify coercive psychological manipulation and in preventing the loss of life, and the loss of "years of life" that many have suffered. We can help to educate children and youth to become what Lessing describes as "people who think about what is going on in the world, who try to assimilate information about our history, about how we behave and function – people who advance humanity as a whole."


Lessing, D. (1987) Laboratories of Social Change, in Prisons We Choose to Live Inside. New York; Harpers and Row.

Orwell, G. (1946) Animal Farm. New York; Signet Classic.

Orwell, G. (1949) 1984. New American Library. New York.

Report Of The Task Force To Study The Effects Of Cult Activities On Public Senior Higher Education Institutions. (1999) Maryland.